Before a few nights ago, I always assumed that this acoustic version of ‘Once I Was’ by Tim Buckley was the definitive version of the song. It is a frail, whispering masterpiece that emerges like the musical equivalent of a spiders’ web that hangs in the untouched corners of our rooms: it has the impression of frailty, but exists in reality with a steal stability.
However, little to my knowledge, this was only part of Buckley’s 1967 acoustic session: it is but an acoustic version of the studio version, an entirely more optimistic song than its acoustic counterpart.
The two versions differ immensely. While the acoustic version is exposed and vulnerable, the studio version feels full: it has a sense of grandeur that is both hopeful and uplifting, even if it is nostalgic look to what once ‘was’. While the two songs might differ immensely in feel, they remain entwined in their identity.
A few days ago, my ex messaged me. They study Spanish and German, meaning that as well as the compulsory year abroad next year, they are doing a term abroad after Easter as well. My degree is only three years in length, compared to their four year degree. Potentially, the last time that I saw them – shouting at me through snot and tears drunk at a friend’s party – could have been the last time that I ever see them.
On the last day of term, I took round a letter and poetry anthology to their house. They sent me a reply that was surprisingly gracious. Yes, they may have called me a twat but, this time, it was in jest. The livid hatred towards me had filtered out, replaced with the ability to laugh and make a joke about how I had broken their heart. They had moved on.
But this wasn’t the surprising part of the message. The surprise came when they admitted that, at the end of term, they had found someone else. That they really, truly, had moved on.
Despite it being me who had ended things, a strange feeling swept through my body. I received the message while I was at work experience at NME, and quietly excused myself for a moment. I just sat. No thoughts, I just sat.
Deep down, part of us never wants our ex to move on. Part of us wants to hold onto the idea that they actually will be heartbroken forever, as they say in their drunken fury. Not in an evil or malicious way, but because if they are heartbroken, then things aren’t quite over, not just yet. The idea that they say they’ll never forgive you for the pain you’ve caused them one month, only to be seeing someone else the next throws this idea of ‘love’ up into the air.
‘Love’ is as much allusion at times as it is real. Love tells you that you need your lover like oxygen. It is the little devil that sits on your shoulder that makes you believe that you genuinely need this person to function. And, when they walk out, love gives you the allusion that your life is over. But the world keeps turning. You keep on breathing. You keep on living. And, slowly, the crater that they left behind in your chest begins to get filled. Initially, this crater just gets filled up with the mundaity of life. Facebook. Twitter. Constant scrolling till your eyes burn. Work. Late night library sessions just to fill the evenings. Reality TV. The Chase. Pointless. Phone bills, water bills. But, one day, odd sparks of happiness add themselves to the pile of mundaity and underlying pain, and from that point onwards you’re doomed: the past is already history.
Maybe the point is not that you want them to exist in an eternal toil of heartbreak, but that your ex finding someone new, no matter how serious it is, is always too soon. It doesn’t matter how emotionally invested you were: the idea that our superlative talk of love is flawed pulls the magic carpet from beneath our feet. The idea that they’re seeing someone else while you eat dinner alone; the idea that they’re existing within that Hollywood falling phase where the entire world is an instagram filter, while you read grey pages in even greyer libraries; the idea that your impact on their life wasn’t as monumental as they once said, or that they once believed.
Your ex moving on is 150 thoughts all at once, none of them coherent. All of them just semi-formed sentences that trail off before the thought is even formed. It’s a silence.
I found out that my ex had finally fully moved on the day that I discovered that the version I of ‘Once I Was’ I had been religiously listening to wasn’t the original. This version that is so rooted in heartache, is not the definitive version.
They are the same song, but at two different moments in time. For me, this acoustic version of the song is sang at the moment of heartbreak: it is vulnerable, it is stripped back, it is alone and it is defeated. But, in the studio version, I hear a man reflecting on a relationship long past. While the acoustic version is the moment of heartbreak, the studio version is of heartbreak long past. ‘Once I was heartbroken,’ it seems to say. The harmonica that supports the song acts like a friendly hand on the shoulder, reminding us to stay calm, and to remember the light beyond the storm.
The differences between these two versions seemed more significant than they should. And then, suddenly, after two hours of restless turning in bed turning the songs over in my mind, I realised that these two versions were my ex. The acoustic version was the ex that was so defeated after I ended our relationship, the other version the ex that stood in front of me now, strong. Free and liberated from heartache and the idea of ‘us’.
On my bookshelf of unread books lies Milan Kundera’s ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’, and it occurred to me how this title so perfectly sums up the course of (most) of our relationships. Perhaps part of the significance in discovering our exes have moved on lies in a fear of being forgotten. As Tim Buckley sings, ‘soon there’ll be another […] sometimes I wonder, just for a while, will you ever remember me?’ We simultaneously want our exes to be happy, but we also don’t want the memory of this laughter to fall into this crater of mundaity.
These unformed sentences that entered my system as I sat in the gardens of St Paul’s trying to make sense of it all finally found a form, and that form is: well done you. That’s all: well done.
Once you were heartbroken, but now you’re not. And I am so bloody happy for you.